Chronic pain: Effective parenting for young children

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​Find out how you can use effective parenting strategies to support the 3Ps of pain management for your young child with chronic pain.

Key points

  • Help your child keep to their regular routines as much as possible and offer them rewards for doing so.
  • Set your child up with good sleep habits, such as a consistent bedtime and a relaxing routine in the evening.
  • Avoid over-protecting your child, over-focusing on their pain or giving them special treatment.
  • Be sure to look after yourself so you can support your child. If you have any concerns about your or your child's wellbeing, seek professional help.

Keeping routines

Even if your child has chronic pain, getting back into routines (for example going to daycare or school, going to the park, taking swim lessons) will help their chronic pain.

Pain tends to improve once function improves, so encourage your child to continue with their routines and provide rewards when they do so.

As you support your child in keeping normal routines, remember also to be sensitive to the reality of your child's pain. In many cases, it may be helpful to work with other important people in your child's life (such as other caregivers, or school and daycare employees) and alter your child's routine. Do not hesitate to reach out to health-care professionals to support you with this.

Offering rewards

For children around preschool age and older, a sticker chart system may be particularly helpful. Agree with your child specific goals for them to achieve (such as going to daycare every day of the week or going to bed without delay) and keep track of their successes every day using stickers. Make sure to keep the goals specific and achievable so that you are setting your child up for success. When your child has achieved their goal, give them an agreed reward (for example going for ice cream or on a special outing together). Verbal praise can also be very effective.

Encouraging good sleep hygiene

It is very important for your child to get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can affect your child's experience of pain.

Vicious cycle of pain and sleep

Understand the sleep needs of your child and follow some standard sleep hygiene guidelines to allow them to get enough sleep and better manage any pain during the day. Good sleep practices include creating a predictable and relaxing routine at bedtime, avoiding stimulating activities before bed (such as avoiding anything with sugar and having your child stop using screens at least an hour before bedtime).

Helping your child with transitions

Transitions (changes) in your child's life can impact their chronic pain. Some children may be anxious about transitions such as entering daycare or preschool, going to a new camp or doing a new after-school activity. The arrival of a new brother or sister is another important transition to keep in mind.

One way to support your child with any upcoming transitions is to have a relaxed conversation with them ahead of time to see if they might have any fears. Once you know how your child is feeling, you can reassure them and seek help if needed. For instance, you can ask your paediatrician or family doctor for help in finding a counsellor for your child or to offer advice on how to help reduce your child's worries.

What to avoid when responding to your young child's chronic pain

Avoid over-focus on the pain

Try not to ask your child about their pain too often or bring up your child's pain as a frequent topic of conversation in front of your child.

Do not isolate your child

Do not keep your child out of school or daycare or away from other places where they can mix with children.

Avoid being over-protective

Do not let your child's pain affect their growing independence. Help them maintain any developmental milestones they have mastered such as feeding themselves, carrying their lunch bag or even going on play dates.

Do not give your child special treatment

With chronic pain, special treatment includes giving benefits or rewards to a child because of their pain that the child would not get otherwise. Examples include:

  • giving treats to ease discomfort
  • bending rules frequently, such as allowing a child to avoid chores or stay home from school or daycare
  • tolerating physical or verbal aggression or other unacceptable behaviour
  • giving into behavioural regression, for instance a child wanting to be fed after starting to eat independently or always wanting to ride in a stroller

Avoid continually searching for a cause for your child's pain

Chronic pain often has no identifiable cause. Seeing more specialists or getting more tests often keeps your and your child's focus on pain rather than getting on with life.

Avoid making your child feel like pain is a defining feature of their life

Acknowledge and encourage your child's varied qualities, skills and achievements so that their pain is just a part of their day-to-day life and not something that controls their routine or personal development.

Supporting yourself when a young child has chronic pain

Having a young child with chronic pain can be really hard for parents. Taking time for self-care is especially important as it will help you to be your strongest self (and, in turn, implement the 3Ps of pain management as effectively as possible).

Self-care will look different for everyone, but here are some suggestions:

  • ensure you get enough sleep
  • exercise
  • eat a balanced diet
  • socialize with people who make you happy
  • do activities or hobbies that you enjoy

In some cases, it may be helpful to seek personal support for your own needs from a health-care professional. Remember to go easy on yourself and recognize that doing so is ok.

Supporting a child if you have chronic pain

If you are living with chronic pain, consider how it might be impacting your child or how you respond to them. Aside from engaging in your own self-care, it may be helpful to speak to a parenting expert.

Getting professional help for your child

Seek professional help if you are unsure about any aspect of your child's care (for example any medication instructions) or if you have any concerns about your child's mental health. Never hesitate to seek assistance from specialists to support your child, and help yourself.

Last updated: January 25th 2019